Yesterday, I reviewed the drama film, The Green. I mention it today because it’s a film that’s set in a small, rural American town that has what are often termed “traditional small town values”. In such places, a culture comfortable for LGBT people rarely exists. That’s not to say, however, that there are no lesbians or gays in those areas. We live, love, and work everywhere in this country it’s just that it’s easier to do and to do out loud, in the open in some places than it is in others.
Today’s book review, the 2001 publication, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, by John Howard focuses on being a gay man in the American “South” (and primarily in Mississippi). I know the book is 10 years old but it’s focus is history, not current events, so the point is moot. There’s a lot to learn between the pages of this book.
The Publisher’s Description of the Book:
We don’t usually associate thriving queer culture with rural America, but John Howard’s unparalleled history of queer life in the South persuasively debunks the myth that same-sex desires can’t find expression outside the big city. In fact, this book shows that the nominally conservative institutions of small-town life—home, church, school, and workplace—were the very sites where queer sexuality flourished. As Howard recounts the life stories of the ordinary and the famous, often in their own words, he also locates the material traces of queer sexuality in the landscape: from the farmhouse to the church social, from sports facilities to roadside rest areas.
Spanning four decades, Men Like That complicates traditional notions of a post-WWII conformist wave in America. Howard argues that the 1950s, for example, were a period of vibrant queer networking in Mississippi, while during the so-called “free love” 1960s homosexuals faced aggressive oppression. When queer sex was linked to racial agitation and when key civil rights leaders were implicated in homosexual acts, authorities cracked down and literally ran the accused out of town.
In addition to firsthand accounts, Men Like That finds representations of homosexuality in regional pulp fiction and artwork, as well as in the number one pop song about a suicidal youth who jumps off the Tallahatchie Bridge (Billy Joe McCallister is the jumper, the movie was Ode to Billy Joe
starring Robbie Benson ~ Shelly). And Howard offers frank, unprecedented assessments of outrageous public scandals: a conservative U.S. congressman caught in the act in Washington (any number of congress members but think pre-2000 ~ Shelly), and a white candidate for governor accused of patronizing black transgender sex workers.
The first book-length history of the queer South, Men Like That completely reorients our presuppositions about gay identity and about the dynamics of country life.
The author seems to be very meticulous with his fact checking. The references section in the back of the book is quite extensive. If he failed to cite where he got his facts and statistics in any area of this book, it had to have been a complete oversight. This reads and feels like a genuine history. I would certainly hope he was not embellishing anywhere!
Though this book is packed with facts, figures and stats, it does not read academically. It’s an enjoyable journey through another place and time…that still exists in ever receding small pockets today.